When news of the Penn State sex abuse scandal broke in 2011, diehard fans pledged their devotion as they kneeled on then-Coach Joe Paterno's lawn. What is it about sports that gets everybody so riled, and more importantly, so ready to deny wrongdoing? This is one of many perplexing questions Alex Gibney poses in his new documentary The Armstrong Lie, an all-access telling of superstar cyclist Lance Armstrong's long and once-glorious career.
Oscar-winning filmmaker Gibney followed Armstrong throughout 2008-2009, amassing footage to build the comeback story of the athlete's return from retirement. After three years off the bike, Armstrong was training for his eighth Tour de France, confident even as rumors swirled that he used performance-enhancing drugs to win his previous seven races.
"If you're trying to hide something, you wouldn't keep getting away with it for 10 years. Nobody is that clever," said Armstrong in January 2011. Perhaps no one is clever enough to carry on such a deceit, but Gibney's film illustrates the power of fame, the pursuit of perfection, and lengths some will go to win.
"People don't enjoy sports for the aesthetic experience of the sport. They're rooting for somebody to win and they're rooting for somebody else to lose," Gibney told New Times. "... If that person wins, you feel good, and all of the other bullshit in your life goes away. That's how it becomes personal. I think Armstrong may have been the greatest sports story of all time because he mixed that with a life-and-death struggle, the struggle with cancer. So not only are athletes looking at him, but also he represents this idea that if you try hard enough, if you're determined enough, you can do anything -- you can even cheat death. That's a pretty powerful idea."
By his retirement in 2005, Armstrong had become the winningest Tour de France rider ever, published two books, and raised millions for his cancer research and survivor support charity Livestrong. When Armstrong announced his return to cycling for the 2009 race, he invited even more scrutiny into his past. Gibney's tale of Armstrong's remarkable comeback was virtually complete, then shelved, when a 2011 U.S. federal inquiry and an investigation by the United States Anti-Doping Agency overshadowed the triathlete's efforts and finally lead to his downfall.
"I think what this film taught me about winning is that a lot of the very top athletes have a kind of cruelty in them that allows them to have no empathy for their opponents," Gibney said. "Lance says as a young man, 'I just like beating people.' He doesn't say 'I like to win' or 'I like to push myself,' he says 'I like to beat people' -- meaning he likes to see the expressions on other people when they lose... We may have to accept that, in sports, that is what it takes to be a champion. But it's very dangerous to think that it's OK to spill over outside the bounds of sport and carry the same attitudes..."
The Armstrong Lie features stunning cinematography by Maryse Alberti and sharp editing and sound that makes the long movie ride an engrossing one. But the close shots of Armstrong, poised to strike at any opposition and manipulate every encounter, are the film's most captivating moments. His demeanor switches speedily from stoney defendant to warm inspiration, and it's both frightening and uncomfortable to see in sequence.
Even after all the suspicion and lawsuits, Armstrong supporters kept faith in their hero, fiercely defending his reputation. But in early 2013, Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey's cameras that he had in fact used performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong looks cornered, but he doesn't look sorry. "I didn't live a lot of lies. But I lived one big one. You know, it's different I guess. Maybe's it's not," he told Gibney after the appearance. Gibney came to realize he'd become another fan, and he'd been duped like the rest of them.
"I was convinced in 2009 that he was clean, absolutely," Gibney said. "...The Lie is that he told such a big lie, which is 'how dare you say that I, as a cancer survivor, would ever use performance-enhancing drugs?' Well, it was the big lie that was profitable. It wasn't as profitable for Lance to keep his head down, move forward, and every time someone asks a question about doping he says 'I never tested positive.'"
Gibney and production regrouped and shot interviews with former teammates, spouses, and journalists, each telling personal encounters with Armstrong's intimidation, vindictiveness, and his determination to keep his secret. Clips of press conferences and interviews give insight into how Armstrong perpetuated the lies over his 25-year career. With his charisma and the encouragement from a corrupt industry, Armstrong played on the public's desire to believe in miracles.
By 2013 when he was dropped from multiple sponsorship deals with companies like Nike and Oakley, Armstrong had garnered a massive personal fortune, and so had his allies and industry insiders who protected him. With the possibility of such wealth, will sports ever be free from doping?
"It's a problem you see in banking, too. The money to be made is so outrageously high that people don't really care about cheating," Gibney said. "...At the end of the day, we should be able to talk about it all the time. 'Is that person doping? How do we reckon with that?' We should be able to raise the issue...It doesn't mean we can't root for people, but we should do it with our eyes open."
The Armstrong Lie opens at the Regal Delray, Regal Shadowood, and Regal South Beach theaters on November 22. Rated R.
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